There have been a lot of stories in the papers this week dissecting Mitt Romney’s campaign, but a lot of them have focused in particular on the Mormon connection. Those that have done so have focused on one of two things:

  • Whether Mitt’s Mormonism hurt his campaign
  • Whether Mitt’s campaign hurt Mormonism

The first question has had far more coverage during the course of the campaign, with polls showing percentages ranging from mid-teens to over half of certain groups saying they wouldn’t vote for a Mormon candidate. Now, we all know the stock answer to these polls, which is, in Mitt’s words, “If you’d asked people in the late 70s whether they would vote for a divorced actor for president, they’d have said no then too.”

Ultimately, people make up their minds based on the candidates which are available, despite their theoretical preferences (and it is for this reason that McCain will get the support of most Republicans even though many would say he wasn’t their first choice). But prejudice does matter, if it’s strong enough, and especially when there is an alternative candidate with some of the same desirable qualities but not the one that gives them pause.

If Mike Huckabee hadn’t been in the race, Mitt might have captured more of the votes of Southern evangelicals than he did, because those most likely to baulk at voting for a Mormon wouldn’t have had an obvious alternative. Would their distaste have been strong enough to get them to vote for a candidate with a weaker position on the values issues that are most important to them? And would their churches and pastors have been as vigorous in slamming Mormonism if he was their best hope of putting a social conservative in the White House? Mitt Romney and his people need to do some serious, statistically significant polling, especially in the South, to determine how much this was a factor, because there’s no point running again in four or eight years if this is a major sticking point. It’s not going to just go away, and I’m not sure there’s anything Mitt can do to change perceptions even if he’s proactive about it.

So, on to the other question – whether his campaign hurt Mormonism. I’d argue that it had three primary effects:

  • It raised Mormonism’s profile, with far more positive, negative and neutral articles appearing in the press than in any other similar period since (and perhaps even including) the Salt Lake Olympics
  • It highlighted both to members and non-members the uglier side of the Mormon question – all the objections that other religious groups but also atheists, all kinds of journalists and various activists and professional anti-Mormons have to the Church.
  • It forced the Church to take a stand about how active to be in defending itself and spreading its own message while a member was running for President.

The first point can be taken either way. The old trope about all publicity being good publicity is over-simplistic, but missionaries certainly got more questions than before, which likely presented them with more opportunities to teach. It got profiles of the Church, some of them neutral, some positive (which was a pleasant surprise), and of course some negative (the PBS series being a prime example), in front of people who knew little or nothing about the Church, and likely stimulated missionary opportunities in that way too.

One of the less pleasant side-effects was the way in which the extra publicity the Church got presented some of the more virulently opposing views to Church members who are normally sheltered from them. Any Church member who spends any time on the Internet looking for information about the Church outside of the official site knows how much of this stuff is out there. But for many members, lds.org has everything about the Church there is to know on the Internet (and all credit to the Church for the huge steps it’s taken since it first had a simple holding page for the first few years of the Internet just 10 years ago).

For them it was unsettling, and some reacted by rejecting everything they were told, even those things with a basis in fact. They flooded the comments sections on blogs and articles, where their relative ignorance about the more nuanced elements of Church history was perfect fodder for opponents who used this as further evidence of the sheltered existence Church members sometimes live. I doubt any of this did huge damage to Church members and their faith, and it probably did them some good in that it forced them to know a little more about our history and therefore make more informed decisions about that faith.

Lastly, the Church leadership took a studiously neutral position during the campaign, and in some ways was too quiet, as it has itself acknowledged this week. It was so careful not to be seen to be endorsing Romney’s campaign that it said very little other than restating some of its core doctrinal positions and the occasional press conference. Elder Ballard’s call to action at BYU Hawai’i went some way towards giving members of the Church position to answer the critics in a way that arguably carries more authority, but we’re all still amateurs at this game and I’m not sure how much impact it has had yet.

I think the most positive thing to have come out of all of this, though, is that Romney’s campaign hasn’t done the Church any lasting damage, and in fact has probably prompted members to come out of their shells and do a better job of telling our own story. I’m not sure the rest of the world comes out of it as well, since there is considerable evidence of real bias exhibited by voters. There’s still a lot to do, but there’s also been some good progress.

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